What to do when you’re stuck in the middle...of winter?

Still remember the lovely days of last summer and fall when Saturdays meant a visit to the farmers market for some good grub and life-affirming community? Are you thinking longingly about the upcoming growing season? Are you a lover of local regardless of the season?

Well, we’ve got some things to talk to you about!

A roadmap

We’ll start out by outlining a multi-season roadmap (a huge tip of a big hat to Karen Shore for most of what follows!) that should eventually get you where you want to be (that is, having access to local food most of the time). After all, we don’t want you to be in a cold weather pickle (hey, speaking of which, fermenting things like cucumbers, mushrooms, peppers, beets, and the like is a great way to have locally grown produce to enjoy in the off-season. Or just buy some delicious products from Crisp Pickles).

 

Winter to-dos

During the first winter (which we’re still in, June weather in mid-February notwithstanding, meaning you could start doing some of the things noted right now)…

  • Look around for an efficient freezer. Or find a friendly neighbor with room in theirs…
  • Learn to cook with greens, root veggies, mushrooms (you know, the stuff you can get your hands on during the winter).
  • Continue to buy local as much as possible. In a bit, we’ll get into what you can continue to buy locally during the frosty times.
  • Stop buying strawberries (or items that are decidedly not local and might require shipping in from far away states and countries).
  • Research backyard chickens (there are plenty of neighbors in Swarthmore who can offer advice and guidance).
  • Plan a veggie garden (again, there are plenty of neighbors in Swarthmore and beyond who can offer advice and guidance!).
  • You might consider planting fruit trees or bushes. Fruit that can grow in Pennsylvania include apple, pear, peach (and other stone fruits), and certain kinds of cherry trees, as well as grapes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries, currants, elderberries, and hardy (not fuzzy) kiwis. Sorry, no pineapples, bananas, or coconuts!
  • Visit Philadelphia’s own massive wholesale produce market near the airport, the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, or PWPM.
  • Look into local farms or co-ops that offer produce CSAs, whether summer or winter or both.
  • Research local cow share/meat CSAs, cheese CSAs, or CSAs with various product mixes.
  • Try a fun little local experiment (thanks to Emma Cunniff from Kneehigh Farm for this idea)! Consider changing your diet for a week+ to locally sourced (seasonal) vegetables and fruits to see what is and isn't truly available in the winter. That way, you will gain a deeper knowledge of when vegetables and fruits are in season, and will certainly appreciate them that much more when they are! You will also get a better sense of what food items you crave during the winter and what you should consider preserving/freezing/drying during the summer and fall for these colder, less abundant months.

It’s growing season time!

Now, be honest, you had fun doing all that winter research and preparation, didn’t you?? When winter is waning, in spring/summer/fall:

  • Build a coop (that’s a coop, not a co-op—you already have one of those in your backyard!) and raise those chickens. Eat the eggs and be smug.
  • Become a regular at several (yes, several, even though we want the Swarthmore market to be your main squeeze!) local farmers markets. Goal: when you walk in, the market manager shouts your name like you’re Norm on “Cheers.”
  • Build a raised bed or three. Aim for at least 2 plantings your first year (spring crops like lettuce and peas, and summer crops like, well, everything!).
  • Eat local strawberries, which are in season for about 3 ½ days, so don't blink.
  • Plant a pumpkin. Watch it grow. Start obsessing about why it flowers but doesn't fruit. Congratulations, you're a backyard farmer. Write a blog or a Swarthmorean article or a posting on Nextdoor Swarthmore about your experience getting back to the land!
  • Remember to buy Jersey or Pennsylvania tomatoes and corn in bulk from PWPM or direct from farms or the farmers market, process that good stuff, and store it in that freezer you bought last winter. Repeat all season with greens, berries, and squashes. Don't try it with broccoli unless you have ninja homesteading skills. Note: some suggest just asking (nicely) a farmer something like “Hey, I need 50 lbs. of these next week - could we work something out?” and they usually do. Best to pay upfront when you are dealing directly with small farmers.
  • Of course, come to the farmers market every Saturday and buy lots of goodies, both grown and crafted.

More cold weather things to do

As the second winter rolls around, you are now magnificently (or at least better) prepared than you were before. Even if you haven’t fully achieved the ant’s semper paratus status, you are in better shape than the poor grasshopper was (see Aesop’s Ant and Grasshopper fable: http://mocomi.com/indian-folk-tales-preparing-for-winter/). Good for you! And now…

  • Enjoy eating tomato purée and cooked corn at every meal. Well, not every meal, but the substance of your meals will reflect what you put up, purchased, harvested, dried, cured, and/or froze during the growing season. You’ll be reaping what you sowed, kitchen-style!
  • Continue eating eggs for as long as your chickens are on board.
  • Enjoy all of the other frozen foods you put up last summer and fall. Like the venison you got from a posting on NextDoor and whatever fraction is left of your beef share.
  • Get annoyed that your frozen 6-month old blueberries are a congealed mass useful only in pancakes and smoothies. But do blend those (formerly) lovely fruits, and bottoms up!

OK, so that was the roadmap. Now what if you didn’t do most of those things and/or you just want to buy and eat local until the Swarthmore market opens again in May? Don’t you worry!

There are veggies that continue to grow at least partway through the winter. For instance (according to local experts, Helen Nadel and Jennifer Pfluger), you can overwinter kale, collards, and root vegetables beautifully in ground. Kale actually gets sweeter in the cold, due to the variation in evaporation temperatures for sugar and water. As long as there's not a hard freeze for more than four hours, you can continue to harvest roots such as carrots and beets. Just the other day, in fact, we feasted our eyes on some lacinato kale and pulled a sweet little carrot from a family member’s local garden, and that wasn’t even the result of planning. Imagine if you planned it all out!

Hardy little carrot still growing in January!

Hardy little carrot still growing in January!

You can also use fall crops – like onions, garlic, apples, squash, potatoes, other root vegetables, cabbage, spinach and other cold weather greens – that have been stored during the winter or take some of those summer fruits (blueberries anyone?) out of the freezer for use in sweeter concoctions. And if you happen to have a hoop house or access to a farmer with one, things like lettuces and greens can be yours! (Thanks to Kate Hartman of Good Spoon and Melissa Allen of Beechwood Orchards for some of these ideas!)

Aren't these gorgeous frozen blueberries?

Aren't these gorgeous frozen blueberries?

You could start a tray of microgreens or sprouts. This is so easy to do in a home window and is another fun growing project. And super good for you! (Another good idea from Emma at Kneehigh.)

Keep in touch!

Sugar maple spout doing its job!

Sugar maple spout doing its job!

Second, don’t lose touch with the farmers, whether they were market vendors or not. As Sara Holmes, proprietor of Whiskey Hollow Maple Syrup, notes: “We really believe the first step to a good off-season relationship starts during the active market season. Take the time to talk to your farmers and producers, form a good base relationship, become friends. Find out what happens in their operation in the off-season – there might be possibilities for you to volunteer if you are interested. More importantly, if you form a good relationship during the main market season, the producers may be more willing to supply you in the off-season if they are able to – possibly let you come to the farm to pick up products or even set up a meeting place once a month. If the community is interested in receiving product during the winter months and the producer is able to provide them, the producer may be willing to make a community delivery to a specified drop-off. Don’t hesitate to make contact with your vendors; most of us would be willing to help.”

Don’t hesitate to stay in touch with our non-farmers either. How might that unfold? How about lunch at Big Sky Bakery or Good Spoon Soups? A wine tasting at Blue Mountain Vineyards? Buying some of Birchrun Hills’ amazing cheeses or some delectable Firehouse Donuts at the Co-op or other spots? Grabbing some MoJo’s toffee popcorn from their factory store? And, hopefully, every once in a while, you’re still sipping some of that smooth whiskey and rum from Red Brick Craft Distillery! Of course, there are plenty of other opportunities like these! (Thanks to Jon Glyn of Farm to City for coming up with some of these ideas!)

Winter markets

There are some farmers markets that stay open during the winter. You will have to travel outside of Swarthmore, but you don’t have to venture too far. Within the Farm to City family, you can visit markets in Bryn Mawr (1st, 3rd, and 5th Saturdays 10am to 2pm), Chestnut Hill (Saturdays 9:30am to 1:30pm), and Rittenhouse Square (Saturdays 10am to 2pm). There are two Food Trust markets open year-round, one at Clark Park (Saturdays 10am to 2pm) and one in Fitler Square (Saturdays 9am to 2pm). And there are a few others as well, like the West Chester Growers Market (1st, 3rd & 5th Saturdays, 10AM to Noon) and the very cool mostly indoor market, Artisan Exchange, also in West Chester and open every Saturday from 10am to 2pm.

Winter CSAs

We’re not done yet! There are winter CSAs you can check out. Nearby, you can pick up from Lancaster Fresh in Rutledge or from Farm to City’s Winter Harvest Buying Club in either Swarthmore or Media. There are others that are farther afield, as in Chester County and other locations.

 

Over and out!

OK, now we ARE done! Enjoy the rest of this very weird winter, and see you in May at the market!